Neuroscientists believe they can measure how happy a person is by measuring the activity in the left and right cortex of the brain. Heightened activity on the left is associated with pleasant emotions, but on the right indicates negative emotions.
Of the few hundred people tested so far, the scores generally ranged from +0.3 (negative emotions) to -0.3 (happy). However one man has scored -0.45, making him the happiest, or most peaceful, person tested so far. He is French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, he has just released a book titled Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill, and you'd have to think he may know something about the subject. I haven't read the book, but I've read a few newspaper interviews and reviews.
Ricard distinguishes between happiness (which we might also call wellbeing, and is a fairly settled state of mind) and elation (which is more transitory and related to pleasure), and says that developing happiness is a skill we all can learn. Keys to happiness include:
- don't allow circumstances or other people to determine your state of mind;
- avoid anger - "anger is a destructive emotion";
- practise meditation, or, as Ricard prefers to call it, mind training, daily and learn to manage your thoughts - think about past happy occasions and identify what it was that made you happy;
- if necessary, participate in a program of stress reduction.
Cynics and critics argue that being happy isn't very interesting or challenging, and a life of peaceful acceptance doesn't provide the energy to change things in the world that should be changed. But Ricard seems to have a strong sense of social justice and contibutes the profits from his writing to charities.
Although Ricard is a Buddhist, believers in other religions and non-believers should not ignore his insights. Some people believe Christian prayer, acceptance of God's will and forgiveness have a similar effect as meditation, and secular "positive psychology" teaches similar approaches to being happy.
Perhaps the biggest question I have is whether we should make happiness in life our goal, or whether our aim ought to be something, or some cause, greater than ourselves, which positive psychology says is the greatest single factor in a happy life. But I feel Ricard would agree with that.